Thursday, November 3, 2011

In short: The Five Man Army (1969)

Somewhere in revolutionary Mexico. Certified criminal genius The Dutchman (Peter Graves) summons a group of old acquaintances and friends for a heist. Knife-throwing swordsman Samurai (Tetsuro Tanba, trying to go broaden his reign of being in every Japanese film to Italian cinema too), food-fixated strongman Mesito (Bud Spencer), explosives expert and cardsharp Captain Augustus (James Daly) and unsuccessful bank robber and former trapeze artist Luis Dominguez (Nino Castelnuovo) are perfectly willing to take part in one of the Dutchman's plans, seeing they all have hit rock bottom in one way or the other.

The Dutchman has been hired by Mexican revolutionaries to steal half a million dollar of foreign bribes in gold that are bound to be delivered to the military dictator of the day, and instead give them to the revolution. Officially, every member of the Dutchman's team is promised a thousand dollars, but he heavily hints at further plans to steal the gold from the revolutionaries too.

However, before anyone can think about any kind of double-cross, there are a few problems to solve. Chief among these problems is that the gold is being transported in a heavily armed and guarded train only a fool or an army would take on in a frontal assault. Fortunately, the Dutchman is quite the planner when it comes to impossible missions.

From time to time, Italian producers didn't just import a handful of foreign stars to improve their films' chances at success in international markets, but also made attempts to give the director's chair to an American. Usually, these films didn't amount to much, for the US directors were generally of the dependable workhorse type of filmmaker badly equipped to work through the peculiarities of Italian scripting practices, as well as just not the sort of visual stylists many of even the lesser Italian directors were.

The Five Man Army's director Don Taylor is quite a good example of the type of American willing to do this type of work for hire. As a very experienced director mostly working on TV, Taylor is enamoured of a straightforward point and shoot style that makes the film look visually impoverished when compared to other Spaghetti Western. Ironically, how much of the film was actually directed by Taylor is not clear at all. Depending on the source, Taylor either directed most everything or was replaced by the film's producer Italo Zingarelli after a day or so. Since not even the actors playing in the damn thing are telling the same story about its production history, we will probably never know for sure.

Personally, I'd go with Taylor as the film's main director, though, because Five Man Army looks like the product of exactly the kind of director Taylor was, someone who doesn't have much of an eye for beauty or for mood, but who knows how to keep a film moving. The script (curiously co-written by US animation writer Marc Richards and Dario Argento) plays more to Taylor's strengths as a director than is normal in this sort of project, replacing much of the moral ambiguity and cynicism typical of the Spaghetti Western with more easily digestible boy's adventure tropes, and featuring a narrative that is as straightforward as the director's style.

Consequently, Five Man Army isn't much to talk about as a Spaghetti Western, but works perfectly fine as a straightforward Western with (also straightforward) heist movie elements. Plus, it has a pretty great scene where Tetsuro Tanba hacks an office full of soldiers to pieces while Nino Castelnuovo looks on with a shocked expression, which is something that can't be said about many Westerns, Spaghetti or not.


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